Notre Dame fans had every reason to be concerned about the USC Trojans heading into last Saturday’s prime time matchup at Notre Dame Stadium. Yes, the Trojans were coming off a loss to Washington in which their offense looked impotent, but the Huskies were able to stymie USC quarterback Cody Kessler by generating pressure with a minimal pass rush, a blueprint Notre Dame could not duplicate with its limited ability to rush the passer. And yes, USC was enduring arguably one of the worst public relations disasters in NCAA history with the firing of head coach Steve Sarkisian after allegations of alcohol abuse while on the job, an enormous distraction to the football team. But as is often the case, rivalries have a way of drawing out everyone’s best effort, and despite USC’s record, Notre Dame was only one year removed from suffering its most embarrassing loss of the Brian Kelly era to largely the same USC roster considered by many to be a preseason national championship contender.
This game was more than a major recruiting event and a must-have contest against a bitter rival. USC is the most explosive offense Notre Dame will face this season, and it was an enormous test for Brian VanGorder, a defensive coordinator with much to prove. Notre Dame fans tuned in Saturday still not really knowing what to make of VanGorder after a discordant 2014 campaign. The Irish defense played an instrumental role in getting the team to 6-0 before having a catastrophic meltdown, losing 5 of the final 7 games and surrendering an unfathomable average of 44.5 points per game for the final four regular season matchups. Which defensive identity was the true one for VanGorder? The abundance of injuries on the defensive side provided VanGorder a mulligan for the season, but the question has followed VanGorder into 2015.
So how would Notre Dame’s defense fare against a USC offense that raked them over the coals more than any other last season? No matter how poor USC’s season had been prior to kickoff, how could anyone feel confident going against a quarterback who completed 80-percent of his passes for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns the previous year? Notre Dame’s game against the Trojans was the perfect opportunity to evaluate what Notre Dame truly has in Brian VanGorder, and he provided plenty of fuel for skepticism.
How is it possible that Notre Dame is still giving up long touchdown passes on trick plays? Opponents have routinely attempted gimmicks such as flea flickers against the Irish defense due to the safeties completely abandoning their positions to assist against the run. While every defense at some point succumbs to such plays, there is a reason why every team Notre Dame has faced to date this season has attempted such a play at least once: Notre Dame has shown no ability to adapt to prevent it from happening.
Possessing a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter, Notre Dame’s defense came out in quarters coverage against USC’s offense, a defensive coverage specifically designed to prevent deep plays. Kessler faked a handoff to running back Tre Madden only to throw what appeared to be a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to wide receiver Jalen Greene, a former high school quarterback. The fact the ball was in the hands of a former quarterback should have sent alarm bells off to safety Matthias Farley and cornerback Cole Luke, both upperclassmen, that a trick play could be in the works. Yet Farley and Luke abandoned their posts to swarm to the football, leading to Greene making an easy pass to a wide open JuJu Smith-Schuster en route to a 75 yard touchdown.
When Brian Kelly was asked at the half what can be done to prevent the big plays that brought USC back from what was trending toward a blowout at the hands of Notre Dame, Kelly was abrupt and dismissive with his response.
“We’ve got to tackle.”
Yet tackling, as poor as it was against USC, does not explain why the same mental errors continue to be made. Notre Dame knows it’s a problem and so do its opponents – which is why trick plays continue to be attempted against the Irish defense – but the defense continues to fall for it, and that’s on the coaching staff.
Staying consistent with VanGorder’s tenure in South Bend, however, was a tale of two defenses. When Notre Dame needed the defense to step up the most, it did, keeping the Trojans off the scoreboard for the last 25 minutes of the game and limiting USC to a modest 87 yards, including two turnovers.
What the defensive identity is under VanGorder’s leadership may still be unsettled, but Notre Dame enters its bye week with a 6-1 record and ranked No. 11 in the latest Associated Press poll after a win over a bitter rival.
And that’s not a bad fill-in.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.